China may feel it has 'no choice' but to invade Taiwan if it sees no chance for 'peaceful' unification: Goh Chok Tong

He suggested establishing a 21st century "Red Telephone" equivalent between China and the U.S.

Faris Alfiq | January 20, 2022, 12:44 PM

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If China sees no prospects for "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong feels that China may believe it has "no choice", but to invade Taiwan and unify it through force.

Goh shared his views and observations during the third Hong Kong Forum on the United States-China relations on Jan. 19, organised by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges.

China's tipping point a "big unknown"

Goh said that Beijing has "reiterated on countless occasions" that Taiwanese independence is its redline, but the "big unknown" is the tipping point that would force China to act.

"The more international space Taiwan gains, which Beijing sees as the result of tacit encouragement from the U.S., the more the mainland will ratchet up pressure on Taiwan," he said.

During a summit between the U.S. and China in November 2021, leaders from both sides engaged in a "healthy debate", but there were no "major breakthroughs" that arose from the meeting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned supporters of Taiwan's independence that such moves will be like "playing with fire" and will risk getting "burnt", Chinese state-run media Xinhua News Agency reported.

Establish 21st century "Red Telephone"

Hence, Goh opined that both the U.S. and China should negotiate guardrail to avert conflict over Taiwan as his biggest concern would be Taiwan becoming casus belli.

Casus belli refers to an event or an action that justifies an act of war.

As such, Goh suggested establishing a 21st century equivalent of the "Red Telephone" rather than risk escalation and military conflict through miscalculation.

The red telephone was a direct communication link between Moscow and Washington at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Relationship should be underpinned by "healthy competition": Goh

Beyond avoiding conflict, Goh suggested that the U.S.-China relationship should be underpinned by healthy competition and driven by cooperation where possible.

He cited both Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden advocating fair competition and abiding with international rules.

Goh's opinion on cooperation echoed Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's views during the 12th S Rajaratnam Lecture organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Nov. 30, 2021.

Heng said that the U.S. and China should not let strategic cooperation overshadow opportunities for mutual progress.

"Alongside competition, it is crucial that they also cooperate where necessary," he added, adding that there are "many areas of complementarity in economic development between the two largest economies which are at different stages of development".

Both countries should define healthy competition

However, Goh highlighted that both the U.S. and China will have to address what healthy competition will look like in accordance with international law and the existing international rules-based order.

"There are many pressing global issues that require both the U.S. and China to cooperate closely as global powers," he said.

Some examples that Goh listed include free trade, climate change, global pandemic preparedness and religious extremism.

Mutual strategic distrust a "deficit" in the geopolitical ledger: Goh

Goh said that the main "deficit" in the "geopolitical ledger" is the mutual strategic distrust between the U.S. and China.

According to Goh, this stems from a difference in values, ideologies, worldviews, political systems and perspectives on global governance.

In his remark, Goh also gave an overview of how the two major powers see each other.

1. U.S. sees China as a strategic competitor

He said that the U.S. views China as its "main strategic competitor and a threat to American national security and values".

"From Washington's perspective, China is not following the established rules of the global order despite being a chief beneficiary," Goh said.

"Instead, China is seeking to rewrite these rules in its favour," he added.

2. China views U.S. actions as a containment strategy

As for China, at best, they see actions by the U.S. as a containment strategy to prevent China's rise as a global power. At worst, Goh said that China views this as a long-term strategy to weaken China and break it up.

According to Goh, the Chinese leadership takes the view that foreign powers managed to exploit China in the past because it was not strong enough.

Hence, China is building up multiple defensive and offensive capabilities - at sea, in the air, out at space, through cyber warfare, and even nuclear weapons.

"The threat of mutually assured destruction is the best deterrence," Goh said.

3. U.S. views Chinese military harbours offensive intent

China believes these capabilities are needed to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

However, to the U.S., China's military build-up harbours offensive intent, particularly they see Bejing as being reluctant to engage in global discussions in managing the build-up of nuclear capabilities.

To China, the U.S. should instead be the one to scale down its "immensely superior nuclear capabilities".

Goh also shared that during a virtual summit between the U.S. and China, Xi compared both the U.S. and China to two giant ships that must forge ahead together without colliding.

Goh opined that both countries must see that it is in their own interests to maintain a stable and peaceful international environment.

"Both countries need to implement 'trust but verify' agreements as they try to resolve outstanding bilateral issues while attaining their geopolitical ambitions," Goh said.

Other countries can be a "Voice of Moderation"

For the other countries, Goh said that they can act as a "Voice of Moderation", a point he has made since 2019.

It represents the concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, business, think tanks and people who want to avert a catastrophic clash between the U.S. and China.

This group must urge the U.S. and China to play a "positive-sum game", not a zero-sum nor a negative-sum game.

"All countries in the world want a positive and constructive relationship with both the U.S. and China," Goh added.

Asean substantive Voice of Moderation

As for Asean, Goh views that the association can be a substantive Voice of Moderation.

"We have consistently encouraged both the U.S. and China to remain productively engaged in the region across different sectors," Goh said.

He added that both countries are also dialogue partners of Asean, and he hopes to continue engaging China and the U.S. at Asean meetings at the highest level.

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